Destroying Loyalty 2: How American Airlines’ Abuse Set Me Free

Destroying Loyalty 2: How American Airlines’ Abuse Set Me Free

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For 2 decades I’ve been deeply enmeshed in loyalty. First as a customer, then an obsessive “hardcore” loyalty junkie. Eventually my interest in loyalty helped give rise to the gamification movement and my work designing and developing engagement solutions across a wide range of industries. Although gamification encompasses much more than loyalty, I’ve continued to stay involved and engaged as both a loyalty designer and customer.

I’ve noticed over the last couple of years that most existing loyalty programs have become quite stagnant, and my patience for them has worn thin. This may be a result of my relentless travel schedule – speaking about gamification to audiences worldwide – or because of the fact that programs have not fundamentally evolved. They are still largely the same – earn and burn- and the only constant is that they continue to reduce benefits and struggle to maintain their same quality level.

So, like many laypeople I’ve begun to question my programmatic loyalty. That is, the programs themselves have become boring and I don’t believe in their brand promise anymore. So I’ve been analyzing the reasons, talking to others in a similar situation, and blogging about my thoughts. My first post – on the failures of brand promise and consistent pattern of lying – at Starwood raised some eyebrows. But there are other, even more insidious ways in which loyalty marketers are their own worst enemy.

Take the case of American Airlines. USAToday recently ran a piece on why people are avoiding AA as customers. Their story – which could largely have been said about any airline – focused on basic value proposition failures of the airline: lost bags, poor service at the point of delivery, etc. But what about core elements of the loyalty program? What if the company both underwhelms in product *and* in loyalty.

On this score, I don’t think there could be a more emblematic company than American Airlines – but the USA Today story fundamentally missed the point. Here’s my experience:

A couple of months ago, I had an important speech to give in Barcelona for one of the world’s largest pharma companies and on a very tight schedule. I had to get from San Diego to Spain in a specific window, without which I would miss the event entirely and forfeit the speaking fee – not to mention causing huge disruption for my client. They, being AA loyalists, bought me a First Class ticket assuming this would help ensure that I would make it there for this crucial meeting.

At the midpoint of my journey (Chicago), my flight was delayed by nearly 2.5 hours for an easily discoverable and resolvable maintenance issue that should have been caught well before boarding. Despite the fact that they had the aircraft on the ground for half a day beforehand, Chicago is one of their major hubs and ORD-LHR is a crucial business route, AA spent 2.5 hours clumsily fixing a simple issue. Their creeping delay robbed me of the opportunity to make my meeting due to the tight nature of the schedule. Sure, maintenance stuff happens. As much as both me and the client hated it – and it was a huge disruption – we rolled with it, ate the costs and chalked it up to an unfortunate circumstance.

What happened afterwards was truly shocking.

After a couple of weeks without any apology from AA, I sent an email to customer relations asking them for an apology and some kind of restitution for the huge disruption they caused. Their response – effectively – was for me to shove it. Never mind that I’m a long-term elite with AA, the flight was booked in First Class, and that their incompetence ensured that I missed a crucial meeting with a big corporate client of theirs. The company’s response was – plain and simple – s#!t happens – just be grateful you didn’t die.

I remember in early days of getting into the loyalty game, I asked one of my colleagues – who was a major AA flier – why he stuck with them and invested in loyalty. He said “when the chips are down, they will take care of you. Stuff happens while you travel, and you have to roll with it – but they will always ensure their elites are taken care of.” I’ve believed this – and had many experiences on United where – despite that company’s lackluster service and reliability -they have lived up to this golden rule. In fact, United has made a practice of proactively apologizing for significant disruptions that are under their control, knowing how meaningful and cheap a quick email to customers can be at diffusing frustration.

Apparently, AA doesn’t understand that. Moreover – like many of their peers in the transportation business – they make it exceedingly difficult to engage in customer service. You can pretty much only send an email through a form (or via letter – no phone calls allowed), and there is no way to respond to a reply that they send. If you want to keep a thread going, they make you – maddeningly – circle back with them continuously by starting a new case via web form. It’s almost like they don’t actually want to hear from their customers.

But, I suppose, I should have known that AA really doesn’t have the customer service “gene” – even for their premium customers. In December, when transiting Madrid on an AA/Iberia ticket I was the recipient of some really weird, anti-semitic stuff from IB staff at the lounge. I sent IB and AA a note, and both companies seemed to think that inappropriate behavior on the part of their employees meant to belittle customers and make them feel uncomfortable was something totally acceptable. In fact, Iberia let me know that staff racism was absolutely normal for them, while AA assured me that they would take “necessary steps” without ever following up.

What intrigues me is this: if high-status, high-paying customers cannot expect to receive the highest quality of service recovery when things go wrong, what – precisely – is the purpose of giving the company either loyalty or extra money? It is that kind of loyalty that the companies purport to want, and that kind of spending that their programs have been reoriented around. But what I’ve discovered – at least at American – is that you can count on the benefits of neither, while being sure you’ll receive racially charged and discourteous service at many turns.

This process of bad service, no recovery, blatant lying and discourteousness from companies like American and Starwood has truly helped me break my loyalty addiction. Now I just book and fly whatever is best for me, without considering the loyalty ramification. If I’m being perfectly honest – I’m actively booking away from these companies, but the point is the same. Whereas in the past I would have put myself through contortions to stay at a Starwood property – even if they are substandard or in an awkward location or markedly more expensive for no reason (as they are in almost every city) – or flown on AA to get a bonus or reach a specific annual tier – now I do whatever is best. It’s incredibly liberating, and avoiding the consideration of loyalty performance and outcomes allows me to make much more rational decisions.

I’m getting to try a lot of different hotels, and finding that new, mid-priced chains can offer a lot of value and comfort well above what Starwood would have offered. I’m also enjoying premium cabins on a range of carriers – like Jetblue – that are genuinely trying to offer the best possible service and experiences to their customers. Try their new Mint transcon service – it puts everyone else to shame.

By misrepresenting themselves and failing to follow through on basic value props of their programs, companies like American Airlines have taught me to not be loyal at all, leaving me more time and money to do other things that I care about.

I guess I should thank them. At least the game was fun while it lasted.

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